Co-ops for some PhD students, miniature American flags for others!

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski. Shared under Creative Commons.

I read with some interest the recent news that the University of British Columbia will be launching a pilot program, offering co-op positions to their PhD students in English. The news was greeted with some excitement from people, myself included, in that it seemed to be that a major university was finally doing something to address the employability of their English PhD grads who more than likely won’t be able to find a tenure track job. For me, however, the shine wore off pretty quickly, much the same way my initial enthusiasm for all things #alt-ac waned before long.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. While I think it is wise for PhDs in any discipline to cultivate skills that have use outside of the university, implementing a co-op program for PhD students doesn’t actually solve the fundamental problem faced by PhDs entering the non-academic workforce: the fact that compared to being in the workforce for the same amount of time, a PhD in English (and I assume many other fields) is a not the best place to do your non-academic career development.

I’d happily argue that doing a PhD in English helps hone a highly valuable set of skills like analytical thinking, project development, written and oral communication, persuasive logic, among any number of things. But what I am skeptical of—and I say this after a year in the private sector, post-PhD—is that the PhD does this as well as actually working for a living. Even if it does as good a job over the same period of time, I’m skeptical that it makes sense to do a PhD to acquire those skills, given that you’re more than likely getting paid far, far less to do a PhD. I know that money’s not a big motivator for many people (especially in an English PhD program), and that’s fine for those people; others, however, would like a living wage before they are 30. And when you consider how many people actually are going into debt for the PhD? Well, the case becomes clearer in my mind.

Realistically, your typical PhD program is designed as prep for one career and one career only: an academic one. This should hardly be surprising, given that it is largely administered by people who have only known the very same career. It’s unfair to expect somebody who has spent his or her entire professional life studying, say, Spenser to all of a sudden provide expert advice on non-academic proposal writing. I think that asking the PhD as it is currently conceived of–and as it is currently delivered–to do more than provide professional training to produce new professors is a bit much.

Is the UBC program a step in the right direction, then? Well, I’m not so sure. The graduates of a co-op PhD program in English may be more employable than others in their cohort who do not work on a co-op assignment. But that’s a pretty small portion of the people who will be applying for those non-academic jobs. If I’m being generous, I can see UBC’s program as providing the means by which students can build practical experience they can put on a non-academic CV. But is the PhD the best place to do this? Are these skills that are necessarily beyond the ken of, say, an undergrad or an MA? It doesn’t seem so; in fact, on the Types of Work page they mention that “Arts Co-op already offers an MA Co-op program in SLAIS (Library/Archival studies) and is recruiting additional employers interested in PhD students from English.” So what’s the PhD for here? That’s four years (at least) of work to put you in the same place in the job market as a person with an MA.

If I am optimistic, I’d say that UBC is making a well-intentioned effort to address a massive problem in graduate education today by helping its students find transferable skills through real world experience. But if I’m cynical–and honestly, around this stuff, I seem to be more cynical than not lately–I’m seeing this as a play on UBC’s part to differentiate themselves from other English PhD programs by capitalizing on a lot of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt facing PhD students (and would-be PhD students) about their employability. That is, UBC sees an opportunity in the market and they are seizing it presumably to attract more PhD students. And after recently reading Garry Canavan’s blog post “The Five-Year PhD as Improved Plumbing,” as well as Mark Bousquet’s How the University Works, I’m extremely wary of any steps taken to “solve” the PhD crisis that don’t involve a significant reduction of enrolment (ideally, but unlikely to be, accompanied by an overhaul in hiring practices and a reinvestment in the faculty. [I can dream]).

I guess for me the bottom line is that a program like UBC’s, and indeed, any program that incorporates “practical” skill development into education at the PhD level is little more than palliative care. I’d love to see programs that gave students the opportunity to pursue their passion in the Humanities while developing practical skills but I just don’t feel as though the PhD is the place to be implementing that.

And this brings me back to why the shine’s come off the Alt-Ac apple for me. As much as I do believe that PhDs should be viable hires for organizations, the fact remains that the PhD rarely makes somebody a more viable hire than someone who has spent that same time in the workforce. Of course, it’s a lot tougher to make that call when you’re coming out of an MA and excited to dive deep into Melville or Chaucer or whomever. And maybe that’s the other reason why I think we should be cautious before going all gung-ho for practical components to PhD programs. I think it’s important for people to have a space to explore those kind of intellectual passions without worrying too much about the market value of that practice. And that’s something PhDs are actually good at.

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Alt-Ac Careers, the Lost Generation, and the University

"A mash-up of two images to metaphorically depict the challenges of escaping the ivory tower."

"Escape the Ivory Tower" by jtneill. Reproduced under Creative Commons.

I created this blog as an alternative way to disseminate my research. That is, I expected this to be a place to post work in its germinal stage, material that didn’t make it into a final draft of an essay, bits of trivia that I encountered while doing my research, and the like.

I didn’t expect my first post to be a meditation on the state of my academic career. I guess it’s not all that surprising. Part of the reason I created this blog was to help me get an academic career. But lately, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what an academic career looks like.

This is in part due to the recent surge in dialogue surrounding the so-called alternative academy (“alt-ac,” or “altac”) movement. Spurred on, in part, by what I would describe as an emergent “lost generation” of scholars who have been or are being displaced by the dearth of “traditional” academic work—that is, the tenure-track position—in the United States and Canada, proponents of the alt-ac movement are exploring alternative career paths for scholars, especially those in the humanities and the social sciences, who have no obvious road to an “industry” the way some graduate students and faculty members in the hard sciences might.

Obviously, this has captured my attention. I am, after all, a potential member of that “lost generation.” I defended my dissertation nearly a year ago, and since then I have been working as part-time faculty member. I have it a lot better than most. Compared to many other institutions, particularly those in the United States, my university pays me fairly well, and if I can get two or three courses a semester, I do okay, financially.

At the same time, that’s a big—and frustrating—”if.” It’s pretty difficult to plan for your future if you don’t know how much money you’ll be making in four months’ time. Right now, I am unemployed. I was very lucky to get a summer course, but it doesn’t start until July. This means that I don’t have an income for two months.  I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner with a full-time job, but for many, this would be a pretty dire predicament.

There’s a psychological cost here. Many graduate students become of the mindset that anything other than the tenure-track job is a sign of failure. The fact is that this is what universities are training you for when you are a Ph.D. student. Though many schools will now have workshops on working outside the ivory tower, or advertise the non-academic careers of some of their graduates, programs are still designed as an apprenticeship in being a professor. You take courses. You do comprehensive exams, to ensure that you are capable of teaching beyond your dissertation. Finally, you write something that resembles an academic book and, with the approval of some senior scholars, you join a fraternity of academics and are expected to publish, publish, publish, turning chapters into articles and the dissertation into a book.

In the meantime, you apply for jobs, and you’re told that in today’s market, you can’t be choosy. If you want to be a professor, you have to be willing to work anywhere. You can’t (much to the chagrin of your parents) wait for a job in the right place to come along, or just drop your CV off at the university down the street. Oh, and there’s a time limit, too. If you work as an adjunct professor for too long, you’ll become “tainted goods,” and hiring committees will wonder why you didn’t find a job already. (The reason, of course, probably has nothing to do with the candidate.) Regardless, your eyes must always be on the prize: a book-lined office in some ivied building, and the title of “professor.”

The alt-ac movement wants to challenge these ideas. Its proponents recognize that there simply aren’t enough tenure-track jobs to go around, and that it is unrealistic to tell graduate students at this point that there ever will be. But what makes me a believer in this movement is that rather than simply telling students to jettison their dreams of higher education, especially in the humanities, the alt-ac movement recognizes that fields like English, History, and Sociology do develop students who have something to contribute to the world beyond the university. As a doctor of English, I’m idealistic enough to believe that the humanities do give value back to the world, and that I have useful skills, abilities, and talents that are desirable to off-campus institutions and businesses.

However, if the alt-ac movement is to really take off, it is going to need institutional support. And frankly, I don’t know why universities aren’t clamouring to get on board. If humanities departments want to survive, and even thrive, they need to actually embrace the fact that the tools of the discipline have value outside the university, and they need to market that. Part of the reason humanities programs are struggling so is because of the perception that they have no value beyond the choir they are preaching to. Universities need to embrace the possibility of alternative careers for academics. This will demonstrate to the world that the humanities and the social sciences do absolutely have value beyond the walls of the university and that they are capable of more than just preaching to the choir. Universities should do more to liase with post-academic scholars and use them as a contact point between the humanities and the “real world.”

So, I guess my interest in the alt-ac movement is not simply out of self-interest. It’s not a “plan B,” or an escape hatch. It’s something I believe in pretty strongly. I know far too many intelligent, skilled, and creative humanities students who have an awful lot to give the world, within the university or without.